Hospital Food: A Nurse's Take

NursingJuly 30, 2014

Mary S., a registered nurse, laughs when asked for her take on food in hospitals, quipping that "there's a lot more that goes into that than people might think." She says two things seem almost universal: Hospital food for patients tastes bad, and, although cafeteria food is often the same old stuff, nurses will inevitably eat it. "If we get busy and hungry enough," she explains, "we will eat practically anything."

Hospital Food for Patients

But does the food have to taste so bad? Mary says that yes, in some ways, it does — for several reasons. For starters, salt is unhealthy, so little to none is added to food. Alternative seasonings cannot replace the robust flavors of salt-laced American diets. A burger and fries is one of the first things patients ask for from their families! In addition, hospital dietary departments must cater to a wide range of preferences, such as vegetarian, ethnic cuisine or other dietarily restricted meals. The unfortunate result is tons of mismatched hospital food waste created every day, all over America.

Another complicating factor is that many food vendors are private businesses contracted by the hospital. Narrow profit margins means cost-saving measures that include lower quality food. Money might be saved, but some of the foods that can be had on the cheap, no matter what the best cooks try to do with it, simply cannot be made to taste great.

All of these factors force vendors to gravitate toward generic dishes consisting of low quality food that is cooked blandly and often served long past when it should have. No wonder families are seen carrying fast-food bags, and even picnic baskets, into patient rooms; in most cases, they're even allowed to do so. It might not be as healthy in the end, but it does make for happier patients who can at least enjoy eating something.

Hospital Food and Nurses

Patients aren't the only ones who eat from the cafeteria, though. Some nurses take better care of themselves than others do; others, as Mary reports, don't care much about healthy eating. Most of the time it just comes down to simple convenience. "Plenty of nurses bring their lunches, but most don't and tough it out in the cafeteria," she says.

Lunch breaks tend to be short for nursing staffs — officially 30 minutes, but realistically as fast as you can wolf it down. "Maybe one reason why nurses tolerate hospital chow so well is that they eat it so fast they don't even taste it," she jests. What could be worse? "We love to eat. Put chocolate or some other goodies out for nurses, and it's like throwing fish food into a trout pond," Mary says.

"There's something about nurses and grabbing goodies on the go," she says. "I've seen harried, but super-healthy, nurses lose it over a pan of cookies brought by a grateful patient's family." In-service presentations sponsored by outside vendors can also provide special treats for overworked nurses.

Though hospital food may leave a lot to be desired in terms of flavor and quality, it is still a necessary part of hospital life. It is life-sustaining food designed to serve specific needs. The only need that it may not necessarily speak to directly is pleasure!

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